by Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Bruce Sidebotham, U.S. Army Reserve, D.Min.
"No single function of communication involves more tragic cross-cultural misunderstanding, with more negative consequences for modern global stability, than inappropriate apologies."
He intended to tell the audience that he was greatly embarrassed for being late, but instead the foreign missionary actually told the congregation that his private parts were very large. This misunderstanding turned out to be humorous, but the misunderstandings resulting from wrongly communicated apologies are exponentially more significant and disruptive.
Different cultures have different meanings for the forms that accomplish universal functions. All societies have ways to apologize. Apologizing is a universal function. Words, grammar, and gestures, however, differ. They are forms. They have different meanings in different cultures. In the above example, the foreign guest chose the wrong word (form) to accomplish his intended apology (function), resulting in misunderstanding (missed meaning).
The "Languages" of Apology
1. Expressing Regret – Saying, "I am sorry."
Chapman and Thomas assert that people differ in their perceptions of apology. Different forms speak more deeply and more sincerely to different people.
You may appreciate hearing all languages, but if you don't hear your primary apology language, you will question the sincerity of the apologizer. On the other hand, if the apology is expressed in your primary language, then you will find it much easier to forgive the offender.2
What's true between individuals who vary in personalities is doubly true between cultures that vary in language, heritage, and majority religion. Different apology forms also speak more deeply and more sincerely to different cultures. When Arabs or Pushtuns hear apologies from Americans in American forms rather than in their own cultural form, then they question American sincerity. On the other hand, if Americans were to apologize to Arabs or Pushtuns in the primary Arab and Pushtun cultural forms, then reconciliation would be more attainable.
Differences Between the Forms and Social Contexts of Apology
Regarding the additional role for social context, American civilization, more than any other in history, takes significant control over its environment. American people exercise considerable personal control over their careers, marriages, and destiny. The American government has broad influence in the world. People with a high sense of power and control also have a high sense of responsibility. As a result, Americans tend to doubt the sincerity of apologies that avoid taking responsibility. They typically respect people who own up to their mistakes. They usually disrespect people who make excuses and blame others or circumstances. Americans especially despise the word, "but," in any sentence that includes the words, "I am sorry."
Most people in the world, however, have little power and minimal control over their environment. They are generally more vulnerable to nature and disasters than Americans. Arabs, for example, have little personal control over their careers, marriages, and destiny. The frequently uttered phrase "insyallah," meaning, "If God wills," illustrates the perception that ultimate responsibility rests with God rather than people.
Middle Eastern governments have little global influence and tend to see themselves as victims in a world order dominated by others. People with a low sense of power and control have a low sense of responsibility. Therefore, shouldering responsibility is rarely a necessary part of their apologies, and blaming shortcomings on others is actually part of the form for apologizing. People in these contexts desire dignity more than accountability.
American quickness to apologize to the world for everything from collateral damage in air strikes and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses, to past injustices like the slave trade, flows from a sense of being responsible and in control. Confessing "sins" and accepting responsibility fills an American emotional need, but it does not lead to reconciliation with offended populations. Those offended parties are not looking for admissions of guilt or acceptance of responsibility as much as they are looking for restitution and the affirmation of dignity that comes when someone asks for forgiveness. Neither making restitution nor requesting forgiveness requires the admission of responsibility; however, these are the primary apology forms for much of the world.
Religious Context Driven Differences
Apologies in most of the rest of the world do not require these words of confession and accountability. To an American, omitting these sentiments would not really be an apology. And yet reconciliation happens all the time around the world in families and between tribes without anyone ever admitting guilt or accepting responsibility.
In American culture, the main glue of relationships is trust, an important ideal in relationships is innocence, and a major destroyer of relationships is guilt. In most of the rest of the world's cultures, the main glue is respect, an important ideal is honor, and a major destroyer is shame. American apologies seek to restore trust. For Americans, humbly admitting guilt enhances trustworthiness. Apologies in most other cultures seek to restore respect. Respectability involves honor, status, and appearances. Admitting guilt takes humility and undermines honor.
In both Christianity and Islam, relationship with God begins with identity as God's people through profession of faith. In Muslim tradition, however, God forgives the sins of his people when they demonstrate that they are good Muslims by performing the ritual works of Islam (like the five pillars of Islam: fasting, praying, pilgrimage, alms giving, and reciting the creed). Confession is not necessary. Respectability is maintained. Humiliation is avoided. God forgives sins based upon good deeds outweighing bad ones.
The equivalent form in personal and corporate relationships is making restitution and asking for forgiveness. Restitution is like a good deed. It affirms the dignity of both parties. Just as a government or insurance company can restore what has been lost without being at fault for someone else's wrong-doing, a wrong-doer can restore what has been lost without ever admitting responsibility. Asking for forgiveness is different than saying "I am sorry." It surrenders control to the other party. It moves responsibility for restoring relationship from the guilty party to the offended party. It admits to imperfection, but it does not admit to all of the details of the offense. That kind of detail would be a confession.
Making restitution and asking for forgiveness, while blaming circumstances or others in order to avoid responsibility, is the principle apology form in cultures with Muslim majorities. In many years of living and working among Muslims, I have rarely heard a Muslim say "I am sorry," but I hear them asking for forgiveness all the time. In fact, requesting forgiveness from friends and relatives is an important feature in Muslim holiday celebrations. Humility in cultures with Muslim majorities isn't demonstrated in the ability to admit faults but in the ability to depend upon grace from others to forgive faults that remain unconfessed. From the perspective of the people in these cultures, it is the American form for apology that sabotages reconciliation by undermining the dignity of the parties who need to reconcile. It publicly humiliates one party, it embarrasses the other, and it gives relational control to the offender rather than to the offended.
Some Practical Implications
The consequences of failing to respond in a culturally-appropriate manner were demonstrated in Mosul, Iraq, in early 2009. A civilian sedan drove deliberately in front of aheavy American tracked vehicle as it was on patrol. The automobile driver and achild passenger were killed. The Americans made restitution to the family of the child
The American admission of responsibility actually played into the hands of insurgents who were waging an information campaign against the Americans and against the American-supported Iraqi government. On the very day that the American battalion commander of the unit that had been involved in the accident was on his way to meet with community leaders to underscore his apology and deliver compensation, a member of the dead child's family exacted revenge by driving into the commander's vehicle with an explosive-packed car that killed the commander.
It's exactly the opposite of expectations for the form of apology that's primary in America. The admission of guilt and responsibility just serves to vindicate the aggrieved parties in their hostility. Forgiveness for transparently admitting guilt follows when entities are already in trusting relationships. When trusting relationships do not exist, that kind of transparency simply enhances justification for hostility.
Instead of expressing regret and thereby taking some measure of responsibility for everything from the Crusades to enhanced interrogations, American entities should request forgiveness – not for the perceived offenses, but for generic inadequacy. They should use words like, "If there's anything that we've done to offend you, please forgive us." This language transfers the initiative and responsibility for the relationship to the party that perceives itself to be offended without adding to their excuses for nursing bitterness. American aid for relief and development should then be offered not as restitution for American offenses, but as restitution for damage done by uncontrollable parties and circumstances. Accepting the aid becomes an admission that uncontrollable forces are to blame, that generic forgiveness is being offered, and that relationship is being established.
Apologizing to people in one culture in the unfamiliar foreign form of another compounds misunderstanding and hostility over the original offense. American diplomatic and stability force entities habitually aggravate hostility and misunderstanding by apologizing in the form most familiar to them rather than in the form familiar to their audience. To facilitate global peace and security, American entities in cross-cultural relationships need to understand and accommodate forms for apology that are unfamiliar to them.
About the author: Bruce Sidebotham spent seven years doing cross-cultural ministry in Indonesia. He is the son of a Navy Chaplain. He is a Geologist, a Civil Engineer, and a former officer in the Army Corps of Engineers. He has a Master’s degree in Intercultural Studies and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) from Columbia International University, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from New Geneva Theological Seminary.
1. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2006) p. 24.
|Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 April 2013 15:36|